Marcus Rediker, author of "The Slave Ship: A Human History," was awarded the fourth annual George Washington Book Prize, honoring the most important new book about America's founding era, during ceremonies at Mount Vernon Estate May 29. For his work in this bicentennial year of the abolition of slavery in America Rediker was awarded $50,000.
A prize-winning author, who chairs the University of Pittsburgh's history department, Rediker was honored for his definitive and painfully evocative account of the floating prisons that carried an estimated 12.4 million African across the so-called "Middle Passage" of the Atlantic to help build the newly established America.
"One of the things I wanted to do in this book was to make our understanding of the slave trade concrete -- hence my subtitle, "a human history" -- because I think our capacity to live with injustice depends to some extent on making it abstract," said Rediker.
"The George Washington Book Prize is a tremendous honor, and a surprise. I grew up in the South, went to high school in Virginia, so George Washington and the Virginia aristocracy always loomed large in my mind. It's where I first came to understand issues of race and class and I've been working on them ever since," he said in accepting the award.
Presented to the author at a black-tie dinner attended by some 200 luminaries from the worlds of book publishing, politics, journalism, and academia, the prize includes, in addition to the monetary reward, a medal. It is one of the largest history awards in the nation.
Complete with fireworks and candlelight tours of Washington's Mansion, the event also celebrated the works of two other finalists: Woody Holton, author of "Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution," and Jon Latimer, author of "1812: War with America."
The books were selected by a three-person jury of American historians, including Chairman Robert L. Middlekauff, University of California, Berkeley; Elizabeth A. Fenn, Duke University; and Andrew Jackson O'Shanghnessy, director, Monticello's International Center for Jefferson Studies and professor of history, University of Virginia.
Rediker's book was named the winner by a panel of two representatives from each of the three institutions that created and sponsor the prize -- Washington College of Chestertown, Maryland; the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, New York City; and the Mount Vernon Ladies Association -- plus historian Patricia Bonomi of New York University.
"For more than 200 years, Americans have been engaged in an ongoing -- and sometimes contentious -- conversation about the meaning and significance of the country’s founding era. The George Washington Book Prize honors books that contribute fresh insights to that national conversation," said Adam Goodheart, Hodson Trust-Griswold director of Washington College's C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, which administers the prize.
Created in 2005, the George Washington Book Prize was awarded in its inaugural year to Ron Chernow for "Alexander Hamilton." In 2006 it went to Stacy Schiff for "A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France and the Birth of America." Last year's recipient was Charles Rappleye for his "Sons of Providence: The Brown Brothers, the Slave Trade, and the American Revolution."